Viewpoint: How Obama secures his legacy
- 8 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
Obama ran as a two-term president, and has the potential to make the next four years transcendent. But only, as Ellis Cose explains, if he rolls up his sleeves and gets to the hard work of governing.
From the moment of Barack Obama's election in 2008, one thing was clear - his pre-eminent legacy, in the eyes of many thoughtful observers, would have nothing to do with his actual accomplishments.
Simply by winning, he torpedoed the notion that colour remained an insurmountable barrier to accomplishment in a nation that had once deemed blacks fit for little more than picking cotton.
In embracing the symbolic potency of his candidacy - he was not just a candidate but a totem of progress and a beacon of hope - Obama rendered the normal way of assessing chiefs of state irrelevant.
The process of governing - and the deadweight of a crippling recession - brought Obama crashing to earth. With four years under his belt, and a record to attack and defend, his candidacy was no longer simply about symbolism, but results. And judged against the impossible expectations that Obama himself had fostered, the president inevitably came up short.
But now, having won re-election, he has four more years to demonstrate that he is more than a poster child for the societal progress epitomised by his election.
That's not to say his first term was unremarkable. He delivered on healthcare, sanctioned the killing of Osama bin Laden, and rode to the rescue of America's automobile industry. He also credibly dealt with an economic crisis unprecedented in recent memory.
But more intriguing than what he has already accomplished is the promise he still represents. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg deemed him solid enough on climate issues to win his endorsement. Yet it was hard to see much evidence of that from the campaign, which was spent largely avoiding the issue of climate change.
In this remaining term, if Obama is have any claim to greatness, he needs to regain his voice on global warming and outline an energy policy far-reaching enough to make a difference.
He, of course, has no choice but to grapple with a range of economic issues. The so-called fiscal cliff, looming at year's end, ensures difficult choices over the budget and taxes. And Obama's re-election gives him a power in that fight he did not previously have.
Many Republicans were banking on their ability to wait him out. That is no longer an option. But in order for Obama to prevail, he will have to get his hands dirty.
While no-one is expecting him to become Lyndon Johnson, cursing and cajoling members of Congress, he has to put aside his reluctance about using his considerable charm and clout on congressional members who otherwise will be a thorn in his side.
During a candidates' forum hosted by Univision, Obama highlighted one source of his reticence. Washington, he argued, could only be changed from the outside.
The comment summed up much better than any critic could the problem with Obama's approach. He seems to be waiting for someone else to break the logjam, for some outsider to deliver on the glorious dream of hope and change that originally carried him into the White House.
One challenge he now faces is putting aside the notion that, as president, he can still be some kind of outsider. He has to employ the full powers of the presidency to fight effectively from within.
Yet, even as he gets beyond the limits of a symbolic presidency, Obama must also acknowledge the reality undergirding the symbolism.
America is an increasingly ethnically diverse country, and that played a role in his re-election. The country's growing minority vote was key to overcoming challenger Mitt Romney's advantage among whites (an advantage every Republican presidential candidate has enjoyed since the 1960s).
No forward-looking American politician can afford to ignore the new demographic reality. It obligates Obama, for starters, to get more serious about immigration reform. It also requires something more profound - an acknowledgement that America must be more creative than it has been in tackling its ethnic and economic divisions.
While Race To The Top has fostered innovation in education, it has done little to change the depressing reality that poor minorities are disproportionately stuck in non-performing schools.
And while Obama has spoken eloquently on the need for millionaires to pay their share of taxes, he has not articulated much of a vision for dealing with the nation's growing economic divide. Now, with a second term secured, he needs to put those items high on his agenda.
Americans understand that his first term was no picnic, that he faced a dogged opposition willing to fight him with every weapon in its arsenal, including a record number of filibusters. That's one reason why, despite the disappointments, Americans opted to give him a second term. But now they are depending on him to deliver.
In The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward observed that presidents "work their will - or should work their will - on the important matters of national business."
The real test of Obama's second term will be the extent to which he is able to rise to that challenge, to complete his agenda and secure his legacy, even as the sheen of symbolism wears away.
Ellis Cose, the former Newsweek columnist, is the author of 10 books, including the recently published The End of Anger